Story by Clemens, published under his pseudonym Mark Twain as the title piece of a collection of essays and fiction (1900).
Hadleyburg is proud of its distinction as “the most honest and upright town in all the region round about.” A stranger, offended in some way by its people, determines to ruin its reputation. He leaves a sack with bank cashier Edward Richards that he says contains a fortune in coins, and a note announcing that the money is to go to a townsman who once befriended him, and who can be identified by a remark he made, which is written on an enclosed paper. Nineteen of Hadleyburg's leading men then receive notes pretending to divulge the remark. Scruples dissolve under this temptation, and even the hitherto honest Richards begins to think he may have made the remark. At a town meeting, 18 of the citizens are exposed to ridicule when the Rev. Mr. Burgess reads the notes setting forth their claims to the remark. Burgess has lost Richard's note, and the cashier becomes a hero. The victims pay an enormous sum to avoid having their names recorded on the lead slugs that prove to be the sole contents of the sack, and this amount is given to Richards as a reward for his supposed integrity. Conscience destroys the health of the old man and his wife, who in their dying delirium expose their guilt; thus “the town was stripped of the last rag of its ancient glory.”
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Mark Twain (1835—1910) American novelist and humorist